Who You Gonna Call? Writing Myths Busters!

Over the past few days, I’ve come across several items of received wisdom about authors and writing which made me cock my head to one side and wonder… I can’t claim to be an expert in publishing, but I’m an obsessive reader. So all I can do is give my slightly-keener-than-average reader opinion on writing myths which might be holding some potential writers back or causing publishers to underestimate the markets for a certain type of work.

Productivity is expected.

Photo credit: Robert Bye on Unsplash.

Gillian McAllister, a respected crime fiction author, asked recently on Twitter: ‘I’m thinking a lot about longevity of writing careers and those authors who have amazing staying power at the moment. And so here’s a question to you, readers of twitter: if you’ve stopped reading an author, why? And on the contrary, if you’ve stuck by an author, why?’

There were some excellent responses to this question (you can catch the thread on Twitter), but my honest reaction was that if they start producing at a rate of 1-2 books a year, I feel I cannot keep up anymore. I read between 120-150 books a year, but I also want to discover new authors, read widely, participate in challenges etc. So I’m far from waiting hungrily for the next book in the series. This has happened even with favourite authors such as Ian Rankin, Nicci French, Andrea Camilleri. I am always glad to see a new book by them and will usually add it quickly to my TBR pile (at least mentally), but I may leave them to dangle there for months or even years. I just don’t have the time to be quite so committed to a single author, and it’s getting worse with old age, unless I’m writing a dissertation (or feature article) on them. So perhaps less is more, contrary to what publishers seem to think. And may give the author a much-needed break to invent to replenish the well and invent new things.

Reliable vs. surprising.

Photo credit: Yvonne Lee Harijanto, Unsplash.

I call it ‘comfort food reading’ – those days when you want to revert to an author whose stories you almost always like, because they follow a predictable pattern. But it doesn’t quite satisfy your hunger. Once you’ve wolfed down these books, not much of it stays in your mind. Formulaic can certainly wear thin after a while. I am changing and developing all the time (or I like to think I am) and the authors I enjoy most always seem to grow and develop as well. Perhaps not always in the same direction as me, but in ways which will surprise me. And one direction which we will always have in common: we are all getting older. Louise Penny understands this well, and I’m always willing to follow her blend of the expected (the village of Three Pines) and the unexpected (books that are more about art and grief and belief than about crime).

So please, publishers, allow your authors to experiment, play with genres, take a break from a series, even fail on occasion. Yes, the sales might go down a bit, but who knows, they might also gain the respect of new readers!

It’s tough out there for white male authors right now. 

This is partly in reaction to the recent article in Quillette (a publication that seems to delight in stirring up controversy and boasts about its increased readership as a result of this article) in which a soon-to-be-published white male author complains just how difficult it is to be published right now if you are … you guessed it, white and male. He claims that political correctness, left-wing liberalism and diversity have gone too far, despite all the recent evidence to the contrary, demonstrating that publishing is still not as diverse as it could and should be. Both racism and inflated egos are at work here.

I’ve organised agent and editor meetings for writing groups and have seen first-hand the breathtaking self-confidence of the mediocre writer who does NOT agree with the agent’s opinion of their work. I’ve not seen many flaunting their sense of entitlement quite so blatantly and quoting from their own (clunky) work without any sense of irony. However, I’ve heard others moaning that all the literary prizes are going to the outsiders right now, that you don’t stand a chance if you’re mainstream (by which they mean white and male, in most cases). You know what? That is fine with me! After centuries of dominance by the same old, same old, don’t you think it’s time for others to shine? It’s not like their work is of inferior quality (yes, I know that’s what those complaints are getting at, but it’s simply not true).

Not a New Situation

For all those who have been paying attention to the debate about increasing diversity in publishing or Lionel Shriver’s fears that opening up to diverse content might also dilute that content somehow (and she is not the only one who feels the citadelle is under attack), for all those who were surprised by the fact that in 2018 people are still calling for the decolonisation of the curriculum… this is not a new thing by any means. This has been going on since the 1960s at the very least. Why hasn’t it progressed more? Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason has some suggestions.

Shunting ethnic and women’s studies into a minority ghetto was the easiest thing to do. The creation of intellectual ghettos expanded the number of faculty jobs and left the still overwhelmingly white male faculties free to teach history or American literature or sociology as they had always taught it – from a white male viewpoint. One of the dirty little secrets of many white liberal on college campuses for the past thirty years has been that they share Bloom’s contempt for multiculturalism but do not openly voice their disdain. Saul Bellow’s famous remark: ‘Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?’ resonates throughout academia today. In the early nineties, there was grumbling in academia when Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved began to make its way into college English syllabuses with what was considered unseemly speed.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

Jacoby’s book is full of well-evidenced critical insights which apply not only to Americans, and which should make us question our own flawed ways of thinking.

Many Americans simply do not understand the distinction between the definitions of theory in everyday life and in science. For scientists, a theory is a set of principles designed to explain natural phenomena, supported by observation, and subject to proofs and peer review… IN its everyday meaning, however, a theory is nothing more than a guess based on limited information or misinformation – and that is exactly how many Americans view a scientific theory such as Einstein’s theory of relativity or Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Jacoby starts her book in a humorous manner, commenting on the rise of ‘folks’ in public discourse. A few decades ago, the general American public was being addressed as ‘the people’ or ‘ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. But now it’s all about ‘folks’ to denote both exclusion (us folks vs. them terrorists for example) and inclusion (‘I’m down with the lads’ stance of politicians). She clearly attributes this to a dumbing down of culture and explores the multiple reasons behind this.

There are many interesting ideas in this book which explain some of those American traits which irritate foreign observers. The tendency towards fundamentalism and anti-rational discourse, partly as a result of no national curriculum and certain states setting their own ideological agenda in schools. She talks about the harsh life on the frontier which made people throughout American history prefer the harsher religions with more simplistic messages of struggle, sin and repentance (but then, why didn’t Australia develop in this way too?). She quotes from Bill Moyers, who is constantly under attack for his pro-science and pro-rationalist programmes on TV: ‘Theology asserts propositions that cannot be proven true; ideologues hold stoutly to a worldview despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. The offspring of ideology and theology are not always bad, but they are always blind. And that is the danger: voters and politicians alike, oblivious to the facts.’

In the land of politicized anti-rationalism, facts are whatever folks choose to believe.

It is a dense and somewhat depressing book to read – you’ll need to allow plenty of time for it. But let me end on this beautiful 1791 speech by Condorcet (French mathematician, liberal intellectual and revolutionary, who ended badly in the Jacobin bloodbath) about the purpose of public education for the individual, the community and contributing to the public good:

To afford all members of the human race the means of providing for their needs, of securing their welfare, of recognising and fulfilling their duties; to assure for everyone opportunities of perfecting their skill and rendering themselves capable of the social duties to which they have a right to be called; to develop to the utmost the talents with which nature has endowed them and, in so doing, to establish among all citizens a true equality and thus make real the political equality realised by law…

Why is it still so difficult to accept that and work towards it, nearly 230 years later?

 

Literature of the Borders 2015

I mentioned this literary prize last year: an opportunity for French-speaking writers in Switzerland to measure themselves against French writers living and working in the Rhone-Alpes region. The shortlist for this year included:

From franceculture.fr
From franceculture.fr

Jacques A. Bertrand: Comment j’ai mangé mon estomac (How I ate my stomach)

The author turns his trademark humour on a very serious topic: his stomach cancer. This is not just an account of the illness, its diagnosis and months of treatment, but also a touching love story, since his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer at about the same time.

How can you not love an author who says his favourite books are Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal, Hesse’s Steppenwolf and Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita?

From payot.ch.
From payot.ch.

Xochitl Borel: L’Alphabet des anges (The Alphabet of Angels)

This Swiss author spent part of her childhood in Nicaragua, toured round the world with her parents when she was 13, and now lives in Lausanne. This is her debut novel, the story of a disabled girl who wants to learn the alphabet before she goes completely blind.

Borel mentions the work of Marina Tsvetaeva and Panait Istrati as influences, so again a reason to want to know more about her.

chavassieuxlettresfrontieresChristian Chavassieux: L’Affaire des vivants (A Matter for the Living)

A historical family saga set in the mid 19th century, about a simple farmer whose family believed he was destined for great things and therefore named him Charlemagne.

Not my cup of tea, even if the author pays tribute to Madame Bovary and Truman Capote.

Slobodan Despot: Le Miel (Honey)

Born of a Serbo-Croat father and a Bosnian mother, the author came to Switzerland as a child. In this novel he revisits the Yugoslav war, seen through the eyes of a mild teacher turned beekeeper and his two sons.

Despot cites Moby Dick and Anna Akhmatova as his inspiration.

Christophe Fourvel: Le Mal que l’on se fait (The Evil We Do to Ourselves)

Born in Marseille, Fourvel has worked as a bookseller and librarian in France and enjoys interdisciplinary writing projects. This novel follows the passage of a mysterious man, with no future and no past, who appears out of nowhere in three different nameless town, on three different continents. Described as both an external and an internal journey and a bit of a puzzle.

Fourvel mentions Marguerite Yourcenar and Les Liaisons dangereuses as his influences.

From babelio.com
From babelio.com

Valerie Gilliard: Le Canal

A little girl drowns in the canal of Yverdon, a spa town in Switzerland. The five witnesses each have their own account of the incident, but their voices form a choir (sometimes a cacophony), and ultimately paint a poetic portrait of life in a small town, where nothing is quite discussed nor ever completely hidden.

With mentions of Milan Kundera and Flaubert as favourite authors, I am sufficiently intrigued by this story to try and seek it out at the library.

From tdg.ch
From tdg.ch

Max Lobe: La Trinité Bantoue (The Bantu trinity)

Born and raised in Cameroon, Lobe came to Switzerland at the age of 18 to study. He now lives and writes in Gevneva but his work is still very much influenced by African folktales and storytelling.This semi-autobiographical novel follows the trials and tribulations of a young African man trying to start a new life in Switzerland.

His literary mentors include: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ramuz and Dany Laferrière. Another one worth investigating further.

Jean-Michel Olivier: L’Ami barbare (My Barbarian Friend)

This is a fictional reimagening of the life of Vladimir Dimitijevic, born in Skopje, passionate about football, reading and writing, who founded the publishing house L’Age d’Homme in Switzerland. The author Olivier is an essayist and fiction writer born in Vaud.

From rtl.fr
From rtl.fr

Jean-Christophe Rufin: Le Collier rouge (The Red Necklace)

Well-known for his humanitarian and diplomatic activities, Rufin is a respected travel writer, essayist and historical novelist and a member of the French Academy. This novel is about the futility of war and its many sacrifices. A veteran of the First World War commits a crime and is imprisoned in a small town in France in 1919. His dog starts howling in despair, driving all the people in the village crazy, but he is also the only one who knows the secret as to why his master is in prison. A military judge becomes curious about this strange person.

Eric Vuillard: Tristesse de la Terre (The Sadness of the Earth)

A novel about Buffalo Bill and the massacre at Wounded Knee for this French writer and film-maker, who frequently draws upon historical events for his inspiration.

Only two women on the shortlist, one black writer, and two other immigrant writers. It’s not just the US/UK publishers and literary prizes who are not that diverse then… And only three that I fancy reading.

The winners were: Xochitl Borel on the Swiss side and Christian Chavassieux on the French side.

August: Holiday Reads But Also More…

I’m not going to repeat the holiday reads for the first half of the month, as I’ve written a separate post about them, but here are some statistics for the whole month of August.

20 books read, of which 11 labelled as crime fiction. 13 women authors. 5 books in translation, plus one in German and one in French, so 7 foreign books in total. In terms of setting: 3 each in the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan and the United States, 2 each in Greece and France, plus one book set in Mexico, Norway, Switzerland and the Solomon islands. A bit less variety than usual, perhaps, but this is probably because of the ‘easy escapist holiday reading’ mission that I had set myself. And easy usually means the familiar to most of us, right? Yet there have been plenty of more serious, questioning and thought-provoking reads as well.

The Corpse with the Platinum Hair
Keep Your Friends Close
The Waiting Years
The Inspector Barlach Mysteries: The Judge and His Hangman and Suspicion
Crossing the Line
See You Tomorrow
Your Beautiful Lies
The Long Way Home
The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos
Scellé plombé
The Year of Magical Thinking
The Bull of Mithros
Devil-Devil
The Corpse with the Emerald Thumb
Mating for Life: A Novel
Fear in the Sunlight
L'Amour Actually
The Black Life
Kafka on the Shore
Tattoo Murder Case

 

 

Finally, here are the most recent books I have read, which have not been mentioned in previous posts. All of them are going to be reviewed more extensively either on this blog or on Crime Fiction Lover over the next couple of weeks.

Tore Renberg: See You Tomorrow – desperate losers in Stavanger

Frederique Molay: Crossing the Line – a medical school cadaver leaves a final surprising message

Friedrich Durrenmatt: Inspector Barlach Mysteries: The Judge and His Hangman – is a policeman ever justified in setting a known criminal up for a crime he did not commit?

Paula Daly: Keep Your Friends Close – family torn apart by their own weaknesses and a ruthless manipulator

Cathy Ace: The Corpse with the Platinum Hair – locked-room mystery in a Las Vegas VIP suite

Fumiko Enchi: The Waiting Years – sad story of the fate of wives and mistresses in Japan at the turn of the 20th century – this was going to be my review for Women in Translation month, but sadly I am not going to get around to writing it in August.

My top crime fiction read of the month is Louise Penny’s The Long Way Home and my top read across all genres is a tie between Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking.

 

More Dreamy Pictures

I am still negotiating time zones, hotel rooms with heating systems which require a degree in electrical engineering and dodgy in-flight entertainment, so I am not quite in the frame of mind to write something substantial here. Although odd fragments of poetry keep cropping up…  So here are some colourful escapist images to feed my imagination.

Balcony garden, decoist.com
Balcony garden, decoist.com

Coolinteriors.com
Coolinteriors.com

Cats in bookshelves on Tumblr.
Cats in bookshelves on Tumblr.

Macarons in Yvoire, France
Macarons in Yvoire, France

Artwork, Art en Campagne.
Artwork, Art en Campagne.

 

Hopefully, yours too!